c. 2008 Religion News Service
(UNDATED) Recently my daughter uttered words on the phone that melt every grandparent’s heart: “Your grandchild is eager to speak with you.”When Emma came on the line, she said her third grade class is studying the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights struggle. In a worried voice she asked, “Grandpa Jim, Mommy says you were once arrested. Is that true?”“Actually,” I told her, “I’ve been arrested three times.”“Oh, Grandpa … why?”I told her my first arrest was in Hattiesburg, Miss., in February 1964 when I marched with rabbis and Presbyterian ministers in front of the Forest County courthouse to press for “Negro” (the preferred word back then) voting rights.It was intimidating to march only three months after President Kennedy’s assassination. Some members of the White Citizens Council spat on us and verbally threatened us as our group carried signs demanding the right of every American to vote.Before African-Americans could register to vote, they had to correctly complete a lengthy detailed examination that in some counties included naming five signatories of the Declaration of Independence and the 12th President. (Hint: his initials are ZT.)We were accused of being “outside agitators,” and several of us were arrested for “fomenting violence.” It was an unnerving experience filled with dread.Thankfully, our “Yankee” lawyers from the North intervened and we were released from jail, and the voting drive continued.I told Emma we ultimately won the battle, and this year millions of African-Americans voted for our nation’s first black president _ an inconceivable idea 44 years ago.I was arrested the second time in the early 1980s at the Soviet Consulate on Manhattan’s East 67th Street. I was part of a group protesting the USSR’s refusal to allow Soviet Jews to emigrate to lands of freedom, including Israel and the United States. On the same street was the New York Police Department’s 19th precinct headquarters.The “deal” with the NYPD was that after peacefully protesting for a certain period of time, we would disperse. But we wanted to make a statement and our group chained itself to the metal fence in front of the consulate.Because our protest went further than the cops expected, we were arrested. We were held at the police precinct for several hours until our attorneys arranged our release.Although the NYPD officers were sympathetic to our cause (unlike the Mississippi authorities), we had clearly crossed a line and that act of defiance triggered our arrests.I was happy to tell Emma that the Soviet Jewry movement, after decades of intense struggle, was successful. Since 1990, over a million Jews have left the former USSR for Israel and other nations. In recent weeks, Russian and Israeli officials eliminated the need for visas to travel between the two countries.My third arrest took place in the late 1980s at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. The National Council of Churches’ general secretary, the late Rev. Arie Brouwer, had invited a group of clergy to join him in a nonviolent protest of apartheid, the anti-black policy of the white South African government.My earlier arrests were unpleasant, but this one was the worst because the Washington police placed our hands behind our back and clamped tight plastic restraining cuffs on us. A van whisked us to police headquarters to be photographed and finger printed.Once again, lawyers were able to arrange our release. But this time, it took much longer than New York City. Indeed, the painful handcuffs remained in place until the final moment when we walked out of the police building.I told Emma that again our cause was successful. Apartheid ended a few years later with the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first freely elected president.“Emma, it’s not being arrested that matters,” I told her. “It’s why you are arrested.” I think she understood.When I hung up the phone, I remembered the story when Ralph Waldo Emerson visited his friend, Henry David Thoreau, in a Concord, Mass., jail after Thoreau failed to pay taxes to support the Mexican-American war.When Emerson asked him why he had gone to jail, Thoreau is said to have answered, “Why did you not?”
(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”)DEA KRE END RUDIN
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